As business continues to gain some steam, I was in Evanston, IL recently for a meeting with a prospective new dealer. Since the meeting was first thing in the morning, I stayed the night before in downtown Evanston at the Hilton Garden Inn. There's a number of restaurants within walking distance of the hotel and I decided to go try a Cajun/Southern food restaurant not far from the hotel, the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop.
Dixie Kitchen has been a well-known restaurant in the Chicagoland area for over 15 years. The first location opened in the Hyde Park area in Chicago in 1994. It quickly gained notoriety for it's authentic Cajun and Southern specialties such as po' boy sandwiches, fried green tomatoes, crayfish etouffe, and shrimp Creole. In 1995, Dixie Kitchen was named by Chicago Magazine as one of the 15 best new restaurants in the Chicagoland area. Over the years, it expanded to locations in Evanston and in suburban Lansing.
The Dixie Kitchen location in Hyde Park gained a bit of notoriety a few years ago when it was featured on a local Chicago television show called "Check Please". In the first installment of a program aired in 2001, a young Illinois State Senator from the Hyde Park area, Barack Obama, talked about the virtues of Dixie Kitchen's Johnny Cakes and their peach cobbler. Here's the 7 minute video where the panel, including Barack Obama, talks about their experiences at the Hyde Park Dixie Kitchen.
The owner of Dixie Kitchen, Carol Andresen, also owns the Calypso Cafe, a Caribbean-style restaurant in Hyde Park near where the Dixie Kitchen once was. Yes, the Dixie Kitchen in Hyde Park closed up last summer as the University of Chicago bought the Harper Court business district with an eye on redeveloping the area with more upscale shops and restaurants. The lease was up on Dixie Kitchen's location and they closed their doors in June of 2009. However, the Calypso Cafe remains open until their lease runs out in 2012. Some of the menu items from Dixie Kitchen have migrated over to the Calypso Cafe. Andresen doesn't know the fate of the Calypso Cafe when its lease runs out.
However, the Evanston Dixie Kitchen is still going strong. It was a cold and snowy Monday evening when I made the five minute walk to the Dixie Kitchen location on Church Street (see map). There was a light crowd in the somewhat smallish dining room and I was able to find a seat right away. One of the waiters showed me to a small table against the wall and I was given a menu. A few minutes later, another waiter came over with a basket of Johnny Cakes and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I noticed that they had Abita Restoration Pale Ale on the drink list and I ordered up one of those.
Now, I'm not certain I've ever had Johnny Cakes - which are basically corn meal pancakes. I'm not big on corn meal, but the two that were in the basket were piping hot. There was a side container of sweet butter just daring me to try one of the Johnny Cakes. I finally succumbed to temptation and pulled one out and put a little butter on the top. From the first bite, I was hooked. Shit! This is not going to help the diet! The first one was long gone before my beer showed up to the table. It was light and fluffy and had sort of a sweet corn taste to it. I knew that if I kept eating the Johnny Cakes there would be no way I'd be able to have a full entree.
Looking through the menu, there were a lot of interesting entrees to choose from. They had pasta dishes such as something called Pasta Bienville - a blackened catfish fillet served over a bed of fettuccine alfredo and topped with a creamy shrimp and crab sauce. The cool thing about it is that you could also get half-portions of their pasta dishes. I almost pulled the trigger on that.
You could also get fish and seafood entrees, ribs and a handful of chicken dishes done various ways such as country fried chicken steak, grilled chicken breast, barbecued half-chicken and good ol' Southern fried chicken. And as I said earlier, Dixie Kitchen featured a number of sandwiches including Po' boys, pulled pork, chicken sandwiches and burgers.
My waiter came out and asked if I wanted to start off with one of Dixie Kitchen's many appetizers, including their famous Fried Green Tomatoes. I said, "Man, the Johnny Cakes are enough of an appetizer for me."
He sort of laughed and said, "Yeah, I know what you mean. I could just sit and eat the Johnny Cakes all night long."
I ended up ordering a cup of their Gumbo as a starter, and since I was in sort of a Cajun mood that evening, I ordered up a bowl of their Jambalaya. A lot of people think Gumbo and Jambalaya are interchangeable, but I had a feeling the two were very different at Dixie Kitchen.
He brought out the Gumbo. It had a dark brown roux base and had a generous amount of chopped green onions on the top. I found it to be thick and flavorful with a lot of chunks of chicken, andouille sausage, veggies and even a big chunk of shrimp toward the bottom. It was very rich, but I didn't find it very spicy. I ended up kicking it up a notch with some splashes of Louisiana Hot Sauce. I slightly prefer the taste of Tabasco to Louisiana Hot Sauce, but I noticed that Tabasco was nowhere in sight in any of the tables. I couldn't say it was the best Gumbo I'd ever had, but it was still good. A bowl of that would have been enough for me for my meal.
I finished up my Gumbo and the waiter came out to check on my beer level. He said, "So how was the Gumbo?"
I said, "Rich and flavorful. I especially liked that you guys don't scrimp on the ingredients."
He said, "That's one thing we never do here - scrimp on anything."
As I waited for my Jambalaya to show up, I took a look around at the place a little more closely. The walls were adorned with a number of old time Southern signs, antique kitchen items and a few lighted signs. It had kind of a kitschy feel to the place, but it was designed to look sort of like a 30's style Louisiana Bayou country store that would also serve Cajun food to their patrons. That was the feel and look Carol Andresen was going for when she first opened Dixie Kitchen over 15 years ago. She found a number of these old places as she was traveling the backroads of Louisiana in the early 90's and she wanted to replicate the experience in Chicago. Actually, some of the signs and antiques were sort of interesting. I especially liked the Nehi cola sign shown at the bottom left of this picture. There were similar signs like this all over the walls of the place.
My waiter came out with another Abita Restoration Pale Ale along with my Jambalaya served with a corn muffin that was sort of hard. It had a little more of a red color to the base than the Gumbo. And it featured something I'd never encountered before with Jambalaya - they had the rice moved off to the side of the bowl instead of incorporating it with the Jambalaya. I thought, "How interesting. If you don't want to eat white rice because of the starch, it's not part of the mix." Note to self - don't put rice in the Jambalaya the next time you make it. Put it off to the side, or put it in a separate bowl and let those who want to add it to the Jambalaya do so.
I knew right off the bat that I'd need to jazz up the Jambalaya, so I put a copious amount of Louisiana Hot Sauce on top and then mixed it in. The taste was very good - it had the right amount of kick to the Jambalaya and the hot sauce helped the finish linger a bit longer. There were also large chunks of chicken, shrimp and andouille in it, as well. I ate all the Jambalaya, left a good portion of the rice and decided the corn muffin was too hard to try. Besides, I'm not big on corn muffins. Once again, it was probably not the best Jambalaya I've ever had, but it was the best Jambalaya I've had in a long time.
I was pleasantly surprised with Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop. I didn't know until after I ate there that it was one of Barack Obama's favorite restaurants before he became President. The place had good food, an interesting interior and the service was very good. I'm always on the look out for good Cajun restaurants in the Midwest and they're sort of tough to find. But Dixie Kitchen is on my list for when I get a hankering for Cajun when I'm in the Chicago area. And I can't wait to get back there for more of their Johnny Cakes.
Oh, and by the way, I did sign up the account the next morning...